Freed Sahara hostages had given up hope of rescue

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Fourteen Europeans held hostage in the Sahara by extremists linked to al-Qa'ida arrived home to an emotional welcome yesterday and told how they had given up hope of being rescued from their six-month desert ordeal.

The nine Germans, four Swiss and one Dutch tourist looked emaciated and some wore tattered clothes as they stepped off a German air force flight to Cologne from Mali, where they had been freed on Monday. Kurt Schuster, a 64-year-old German from Augsburg, held back tears when speaking of his time in captivity. He had been kidnapped with his wife, Erna, while on a trekking tour in the Algerian Sahara in February.

"We only heard that we were to be freed two days ago," said Mr Schuster, who sported a long white beard. "We kept setting imaginary dates for our release. First it was Easter, then it was our grandson's communion, then a Globetrotters' meeting, then it was my Erna's birthday. After that we gave up hope." He added: "At first we simply could not believe that we were going to be released."

Clearly shattered by his experience, Mr Schuster asked reporters to show restraint. "We would like the media to leave us alone. We have to come to terms with our experience by ourselves."

Rainer Bracht, 46, from Detmold, said the kidnappers had treated the tourists fairly. "We experienced temperatures of up to 40C in the shade and we were given only about two litres of water a day to drink. The water was kept in old petrol or oil drums, but the kidnappers shared everything with us. They treated us fairly," he said.

"The worst thing for me was being completely cut off from the outside world. We simply did not know how our relatives were coping with the situation," he added.

Witek Mitko, 49, another German, said that after their release, the 14 were driven day and night for 335 miles through the desert before being handed over to officials from the German and Mali governments in Bamako. "I would like to thank all those involved in the rescue; we were given first-class service," he said.

The 14 were among a group of 32 Europeans kidnapped in separate incidents in February and March by the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which is trying to set up an Islamic fundamentalist state in Algeria. The tourists were in their own vehicles on unguided tours in a remote region of southern Algeria. Seventeen of the hostages were released in May after a gun battle between the kidnappers and the Algerian army. In July, the kidnappers smuggled the remainder into neighbouring Mali, where one of the German hostages, Michaela Spitzer, 46, died from heatstroke.

Protracted negotiations involving Tuareg middlemen and the German and Mali governments secured their release. Jürgen Chrobog, the German Deputy Foreign Minister, who led the negotiations, said: "It was the most drawn-out and elaborate rescue involving German tourists abroad that we have ever carried out."

The German government has refused to comment on claims that a ransom was paid. "Germany cannot and will not be blackmailed," was all Mr Chrobog would say. German press reports said that Mali had paid €4.6m (£3.2m) to the kidnappers and that the German government had agreed to refund the country with devel-opment aid.

The release of the hostages continued to provoke angry political debate in Germany yesterday with several opposition conservative Christian Democrats demanding that tourists who knowingly exposed themselves to risk on holiday should be made to pay a substantial part of the costs incurred to secure their safe return.